Bill Ingalls  /  AP
In this photo provided by NASA, Sen. John Glenn poses for a portrait shortly after doing live television interviews from the Ohio State University Union building, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Glenn's historic flight. Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls) MANDATORY CREDIT
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updated 2/20/2012 2:53:37 PM ET 2012-02-20T19:53:37

John Glenn, who launched into orbit for his historic spaceflight 50 years ago, was "no ordinary pilot," fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong said Monday at a gala marking the anniversary.

Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, said there was a need for leadership in the space program and Glenn "literally rose to the occasion."

The former astronaut and U.S. senator from Ohio, now 90, became the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, circling it three times in five hours and helping to lead the nation into space. Glenn has had his share of accomplishments but recently told The Associated Press he envies Armstrong and wishes he could have been part of the first manned moon landing in 1969.

Glenn and Annie, his wife of almost seven decades, were scheduled to cap Monday's anniversary by participating in a student-led question-and-answer session during the gala at Ohio State University and listening to remarks by former astronaut Mark Kelly, the commander of the space shuttle Endeavour's final mission.

Earlier Monday, NASA had surprised Glenn with the kind of anniversary gift only a space agency can give, enabling him to speak live with the International Space Station from a stage at Ohio State, where a public affairs school bears his name.

Sitting on stage with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, he chatted with three space station crew members about space research and NASA's future. Commander Dan Burbank appeared by video link, flanked by two flight engineers floating in the zero-gravity environment, and said the crew was delighted to help commemorate Glenn's momentous trip.

Glenn was among the top military test pilots presented in 1959 as the Mercury Seven. The only other surviving Mercury astronaut is Scott Carpenter, who called out the memorable line "Godspeed John Glenn" moments before the rocket ignited for Glenn's spaceflight.

"Fifty years ago today, Friendship 7 was orbiting planet Earth, and that helped in a very big way, paved the way for America to become a space power, and to go to the moon, and to do the things that we're doing right now on the International Space Station," Burbank said. "And we hope this also can help set the stage for us down the road to do even greater things."

Glenn had a light-hearted but educational exchange with the space station crew, asking them about the types and number of experiments on board — more than 100, they said — and explaining to his gravity-bound audience of more than 200 people that, for example, a candle burns differently in space than on Earth.

When Bolden asked the astronauts which experiment they'd like to hand off to Glenn if he could join them, Burbank suggested research on the "regenerative environmental control systems" on spacecraft.

"That's a fancy word for our toilet," flight engineer Don Pettit added. "So he wants to put Sen. Glenn busy fixing the plumbing up here."

Glenn took the humor in stride, replying: "That's exactly what I thought I was going to get assigned to."

Glenn also inquired about how far the space station had traveled during the course of the roughly 15 minutes they'd been talking. They hadn't kept an eye on the exact distance but said they guessed it was about one-fourth of the way around the Earth.

Bolden joked that Glenn sometimes bugs him about making a trip to the space station. Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space in 1998, at age 77.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: John Glenn through the years

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  1. John Glenn's ascent

    John Herschel Glenn Jr. flew into the history books on Feb. 20, 1962, when he became the first American to go into orbit. But his trajectory to greatness was set years earlier, as a Marine Corps pilot. Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 combat missions in the Korean War. Here we see Glenn climbing out of the cockpit of his F-8-UI Crusader jet at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field in 1957, after making the first nonstop, supersonic flight from Los Angeles to New York. The flight was called "Project Bullet" because Glenn traveled faster than a bullet. The 3-hour, 23-minute trip set a transcontinental speed record, and put Glenn on the radar screen for selection as an astronaut a couple of years later. (Anthony Camerano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting a checkup

    Glenn and six other military fliers were selected in 1959 to become the first American astronauts as part of Project Mercury. NASA put the "Mercury 7" through a grueling series of medical and psychological tests. Glenn is seen here being outfitted with a biosensor during astronaut training activities at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1961. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The Mercury 7

    The seven Mercury astronauts pose for a photo in their spacesuits in 1962. Front row, left to right, are Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Back row, from left, are Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper. As of 2012, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Running man

    By 1962, astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had flown on suborbital Mercury missions. Those flights set the stage for John Glenn's orbital odyssey. Glenn took a no-nonsense, straight-arrow approach to his physical training program, including frequent runs like this one in 1962. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Godspeed, John Glenn

    John Glenn's orbital flight was initially set for launch in January 1962, but postponements pushed it back to Feb. 20. Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule was launched atop an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral as an estimated 60 million people watched via live television. Fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter called out to him over a radio link from the launch pad's blockhouse: "Godspeed, John Glenn!" (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Safe landing

    During Friendship 7's three-orbit flight, NASA controllers saw indications that the capsule's heat shield had come loose - which could be a fatal flaw for re-entry. They told Glenn not to jettison the craft's retro-rocket pack, as an added precaution. Glenn ended up making a safe splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, and it turned out that the apparent heat-shield problem was merely due to a sensor failure. Here you see Glenn's capsule attached to a retrieval cable hanging down from a helicopter. The capsule released green dye into the water to help searchers find it from the air. (Rex Features via AP Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Triumph in Florida

    President John F. Kennedy, astronaut John Glenn and Gen. Leighton I. Davis, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center, ride together in the back seat during a 1962 parade in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to celebrate America's first human orbital spaceflight. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Family time

    Astronaut John Glenn, far right, accompanies his family onto an Air Force plane in Key West, Fla., on Feb. 26, 1962, en route to a series of celebrations after his spaceflight. From left are his wife, Annie, their daughter Lyn and their son David. John and Annie were childhood playmates and high-school sweethearts while growing up in New Concord, Ohio. They were married in 1943, just after John Glenn received his commission in the Marine Corps. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ticker-tape parade

    Astronaut John Glenn, riding in the car seen at left, gets a huge New York welcome on March 1, 1962, during a ticker-tape parade along Broadway on the way to a City Hall ceremony. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Skiing with Jackie

    Astronaut John Glenn and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy water-ski on a tandem tow on Massachusetts' Lewis Bay, near Hyannis Port, on July 22, 1962. Glenn and his family were the weekend house guests of Jackie's brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Running for office

    NASA made it clear that John Glenn would not be going back into space anytime soon - he was just too important as a national hero. Glenn left the astronaut corps in 1964 and decided to get into politics. At a 1969 news conference in Columbus, Ohio, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator. He lost out to fellow Democrat Howard Metzenbaum in the 1970 primary, but in 1974, Glenn prevailed and finally entered the Senate. (Gene Herrick / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Senatorial chat

    Sen. John Glenn confers with a fellow Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, during a 1981 hearing on the sale of an AWACS radar plane to Saudi Arabia. Glenn would serve in the Senate until 1999, while Biden would go on to become vice president in 2009. (Bob Daugherty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Back in a spacesuit

    Thirty-six years after John Glenn's first orbital flight, NASA decided to give him another space shot on the shuttle Discovery in 1998, during his final months as a U.S. senator. Here you see Glenn checking the communications system on his headgear, prior to bailout training at Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 12, 1998. Jean Alexander, a NASA suit expert, waits to help him with his helmet. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Try a bite, Mr. President

    President Bill Clinton gets a helping of a space shuttle meal from senator/astronaut John Glenn while shuttle commander Curt Brown looks on, during a tour of the space shuttle mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas on April 14, 1998. (Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Zero-G and I feel fine

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn works on the shuttle Discovery's Advanced Organic Separation experiment after the STS-95 mission's launch on Oct. 29, 1998. Glenn was accompanied on the nine-day research flight by four other U.S. astronauts, a Spaniard and a Japanese spaceflier. The trip made Glenn the oldest human to fly in space, at the age of 77. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Back on parade

    Senator-astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie, along with other members of the shuttle Discovery's crew, parade up Broadway's "Canyon of Heroes" on Nov. 16, 1998. This was the second time Glenn received a ticker-tape parade in New York. The first one came after his history-making 1962 orbital flight. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Medal-winner

    At the age of 90, retired senator-astronaut John Glenn shows off his Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on Nov. 16, 2011, flanked on the left by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and on the right by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Glenn received the medal for helping to "pave the way for the first lunar landing" in 1969. (Evan Vucci / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Elder statesman

    This Jan. 25 photo shows retired Sen. John Glenn at his office in Columbus, Ohio. It's been 50 years since his milestone spaceflight in a Mercury capsule, and almost 14 years since his space shuttle flight and retirement from the Senate. "I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in my life, and I'm thankful for them," he says. (Jay LaPrete / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 flight

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